The exchange took place during a daily press briefing in which the beheading by ISIS of U.S. journalist James Foley featured prominently, and in the context of Harf underscoring that the terrorist group does not represent Islam.
“I’d note that the grand mufti of Saudi Arabia, that nation’s highest religious authority, yesterday said that the Islamic State and al-Qaeda were the enemy number one of Islam and not in any way part of the faith,” Harf said. “So I certainly don’t want to speak for him, but he was very clear about how, at least, Muslims in his country should view what ISIL is doing.”
Later, Matt Lee of the Associated Press returned to the subject.
“You mentioned the grand mufti in Saudi Arabia,” he said. “But Saudi Arabia is a country in which beheading is actually the legal form of execution.”
The State Department has long criticized the kingdom’s human rights record, he added.
“That is true,” said Harf. “I was just highlighting comments made by their chief religious leader.”
Harf acknowledged that when the U.S. has concerns about “some of their practices,” it raises them with the Saudis, “but that’s wholly separate from our counterterrorism cooperation.”
She described Saudi Arabia as “an incredibly close counterterrorism partner.”
“All you have to do is look at the partnership we’ve had and how – the success they’ve really had when they went after al-Qaeda in their own country and really degraded its ability to operate there,” she said.
Harf said she had brought up the comments by the top Saudi cleric “in response to what publics around the world and who people should listen to and think about when they’re looking at what ISIL is doing.”
Saudi Arabia is ruled according to the strict Wahhabi interpretation of Sunni Islam. Churches are banned, public practice of non-Muslim religion is outlawed, and apostasy – the act of leaving Islam for another faith – carries the death penalty.
Shari’a-based punishments include public beheadings and amputation of limbs. The State Department’s most recent human rights report cited the Jan. 2013 beheading in Saudi Arabia of a Sri Lankan domestic worker who was convicted of having killed a four-month-old infant, after a trial in which local human rights activists said the accused had been denied due process by not having an interpreter during her interrogation and trial.
According to Amnesty International, Saudi Arabia accounted for the third highest number of executions carried out around the world last year, after Iran and Iraq. (Amnesty’s figures do not include China, where the statistics are a state secret.)
The statement by grand mufti Abdulaziz al-Sheikh which was cited by Harf was issued on Tuesday, shortly before a video showing the execution of Foley appeared online.
“Extremist and militant ideas and terrorism which spread decay on earth, destroying human civilization, are not in any way part of Islam, but are enemy number one of Islam,” the official Saudi Press Agency quoted al-Sheikh as saying.